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Alumni Profile: A Writer's Life

  By Patrick Broadwater
  Monday, June 25, 2018

Dow spins ‘Nightingale Tales’ about her adventures in nursing

Carolyn Chaloner Dow ‘59N didn’t want to be a nurse. She had dreams of going to Vassar and being a writer.

But her life and career aspirations were rocked at age 13 by the sudden death of her father. The family, with a brother in medical school and a sister in nursing school, was now financially strapped. 

Carolyn Chaloner Dow '59N

No longer could her mother entertain the idea of sending her daughter off on impractical pursuits. She was adamant. Dow needed to choose an occupation that would provide her stability and financial independence: nurse, teacher, or secretary.

So, Dow chose nursing, in part because her love of the Sue Barton novels she had devoured as a child. Written by Helen Dore Boylston, the series followed the exploits of the titular character as she earned her degree, started a family, and embarked on a career in nursing.

“I really do think of Sue Barton as my fictional role model,” said Dow, who grew up in the Hudson Valley in a small town south of Albany. “I wanted to be like her. Not so much her nursing qualities. But she was spunky and adventuresome. That’s what I admired about her.”

Dow enrolled at the University of Rochester sight unseen. A cousin was in medical school at the university and spoke highly of it. On her first visit after being accepted, Dow and some of her classmates went on an unscheduled field trip with some of the junior nurses, and she knew then that she had made a good choice. “I had a lot of good vibes from that. That’s when I decided that this was the right career for me.”

Though she enjoyed the closeness and camaraderie of her classmates and came to relish her ability to take charge of a situation, Dow thought that her transition into adulthood and responsibility meant her opportunities for adventure were over. But she later came to realize that her ensuing 50-year career as a staff nurse, head nurse, teacher, and mentor, was a journey in itself, chock full of twists, turns, and challenges.

After graduating from Rochester, Dow worked at Strong Memorial Hospital and Albany Medical Center before moving to the West Coast. She eventually settled at the University of California San Francisco, working in various positions over a 40-year period, including 15 years as a nurse educator. While working with other nurses, Dow found that stories from earlier in her career were an extremely entertaining – and effective – teaching tool. When she retired in 2007 and joined a writing group, she began to put those stories down on paper as a way of preserving them. As they began to add up, it became clear that they could form the basis of a book.

It took about five years for Dow to write the book and find a publisher. “Nightingale Tales: Stories from My Life as a Nurse” was released in October 2017 by She Writes Press.

“There was always a little bit of doubt – I don’t think I have the discipline, I don’t think I’ll get to the point where I’ll have a book in my hand – but I did it,” said Dow. “This was the culmination of everything.

“Nursing provided me with all these opportunities. Even though I stayed in the same organization for a long time, I was always challenged by new opportunities and more responsibility. That’s the beauty of nursing.  If I had stayed and done the same thing the whole time, I wouldn’t have had anything to write about.

“It’s all been a big adventure.”

This story originally appeared in NURSING Magazine, 2018, Vol. I.

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